NORTH BERWICK WITCH TRIALS

When was the North Berwick witch-trials? Who was involved in them and what happened during these trials? 

DATE                   1590-92
LOCATION        East Lothian, Scotland
 

The North Berwick witch trials were about the persecution of accused witches that occurred in the town of St Andrew's Auld Kirk, North Berwick, in East Lothian. These trials took place over a period of two years. Which implicated at least seventy people. The confessions were extracted by torture in the Old Tolbooth in Edinburgh.

 
These trials were the first major incident of witchcraft in Scotland. They began with an Important case involving the royal houses of Denmark and Scotland, King James VI  had sailed to Copenhagen to marry Princess Anne, sister of Christian IV, King of Denmark. During their return to Scotland after the marriage, they experienced terrible storms and had to shelter in Norway for several weeks before continuing.
 

Danish authorities who had been investigating the storm, wondering how Anne’s fleet could be derailed while Lord Dingwall’s made it back to Scotland. They questioned Christoffer Valkendorff, the minister of finance, accusing him of not properly equipping the fleet for the journey. Valkendorff defended himself and argued by saying the storm was the work of Karen the Weaver, a witch who had sent little demons to sneak onto the ship before Queen Anne had set sail and that the demons had waited until they were on the high seas and unleashed the storm.

 

The Danish court at that time was greatly perplexed by witchcraft and the black arts, and this must have impressed on the young King James when he has visited. It is known that King James had met with Niels Hemmingsen, a Danish Lutheran theologian and expert on demonology and it has been speculated that James adopted the notion of “the satanic pact” from Hemmingsen. James when back in England, set out on a mission to do witchcraft investigations of his own. This experience must have opened new doors in his thinking, and perceptive on witches and the occult, and triggered what could be seen as an obsession with witchcraft and all associated with it. What happened with Queen Anne’s ship coincided with Kings new found interest. James  would be eventually convinced that this was the work of witches from North Berwick, intent on destroying him,

 

There was a church on the green where the witches were said to hold their covens, dance and summon the devil. This was St. Andrews Kirk, situated on the seafront. This was the place where it was said they gathered to summon the storms that had caused the storm that hit Queen Anne’s ship. The witches accused said that they had dug corpses from graveyards in the area, dismembered them, tied the limbs to dead cats and then thrown the whole bloody mess into the sea to conjure a storm to kill the King.

 
 

Karen Weaver/ Anne Holdings

In Copenhagen, there was a series of witch trials that were held in parallel with the witch-hunts of North Berwick. Karen the weaver, one of the main suspects involved, had confessed to having caused the storms which hunted the royal ship by use of witchcraft and went on to give up the names of the other women who participated in conjuring. One of these women was Anna Holdings, who confirmed the plot during torture and gave up the names of even more women. Anne Holdings was considered a very dangerous witch and referred to as Mother of the Devil. Anna was treated liken to a celebrity while in prison.  She was executed along with Karen. When news reached King James of Scotland, of this trial, it reinforced his need to conduct his own inquiry in Scotland.

 
Agnes Sampson

Agnes Sampson was a woman known in her town of Humbie, In East, Lothian Agnes was considered to have healing powers and acted as a midwife for a large part of her community. Agnes was accused by Gillis Duncan. Gillis Duncan was a made worked for a man named David Seaton. Apparently, Duncan suddenly began to exhibit a miraculous healing ability and would sneak out of the house during the night. When Seaton her master confronted Duncan and she could not explain her new ability and strange behaviour, he had her tortured. Under torture, she confessed to being a witch and accused many others of witchcraft. By special commandment, her head and body hair were shaven.Agnes name was brought up, in respect of being part of raising the storms that caused havoc on Queen Anne’s journey back to England. Agnes was the oldest of the accused named. Agnes Sampson was taken to the scaffold on Castlehill, where she was garotted then burnt at the stake.

 
JOHN FIAN

John Fian was another person accused by Giles Duncan. John was an old schoolmaster. As Fian taught in his school, a boy who studied with him was serving as a scholar. Fian was very attracted to this boy's sister and attempted to enchant the girl with a spell of seduction. Her mother, however, was also a well-practised witch and sabotaged his enchantment to seduce a cow instead. The inhabitants of the town later confessed that this cow followed him wherever he went. Fian openly confessed that he had practised sorcery and even bewitching a man into lunacy. Fian caused the same gentleman to come before the presence of King James in the king's chamber in December 1590, where he purportedly bewitched the man, causing him to be in a hysterical fit for an entire hour of screaming, contorting and jumping high enough to touch the ceiling of the chamber; after the hour ended, the gentleman declared no memory of the event, as if he were asleep.

Fian confessed, during his trial, that he had made a pact with the devil, however, would work toward leading a better Christian life. Fian was given once chance to lead the life he promised but the same night he stole a key to his cell and escaped. He was eventually captured and tortured and had his fingernails extracted, and then having iron pins thrust therein. He was finally taken to the Castlehill in Edinburgh, placed in a cart, strangled, and burnt on 27 January 1591.

 

 

Many were arrested, and many confessed under torture to having met with the Devil in the church at night, and devoted themselves to doing evil, including poisoning the King and other members of his household and attempting to sink the King's ship.

In Shakespeare wrote the witches in Macbeth during the reign of King James in the early 17th Century, in fact, the North Berwick Witch’s adventure in the sieve is even mentioned in the play. In the opening scene of the play, Shakespeare’s First Witch cries

 
“But in a sieve, I’ll thither sail
And, like a rat without a tail,
I’ll so, I’ll do, I’ll do”

PRIMARY NAMES OF THOSE ACCUSED

NAME
 
FRANCIS BOTHWELL
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
GEILLES DUNCAN
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
DR. JOHN FIAN (CUNNINGHAME)
 
 
 
 
 
 
RICHARD GRAHAM
 
 
ROBERT GRIERSON
 
KAREN THE WEAVER,
 
EWPHAME MEEALREAN
 
 
 
 
 
BARBARA NAPIER
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
AGNES SAMPSON

NOTES

 

  • FRANCIS’S UNCLE (JAMES BOTHWELL) WAS A CHIEF SUSPECT IN THE MURDER OF KING JAMES

  • HE WAS THE FIRST COUSIN OF KING JAMES

  • IN APRIL 1591 WAS ARRESTED ON THE GROUNDS OF WITCHCRAFT ACCUSATIONS. AND IMPRISONED IN EDINBURGH CASTLE.

  • FRANCIS BROKE OUT OF THE CASTLE ON 22 JUNE 1591, CONVINCED HE HAD BEEN SET UP AND FLED THE COUNTRY

 

  • GEILLIS WORKED FOR A MAN NAMED DAVID SEATON IN THE TOWN OF TRANENT, WAS FORCED INTO A CONFESSION BY HER EMPLOYER.

  • GILLIS DUNCAN WAS ALSO FOUND TO HAVE CONSPIRED WITH EWPHAME MEEALREAN IN THE MURDER OF GILLIS DUNCAN'S GODFATHER.

 

  • JOHN WAS A SCHOOLMASTER IN PRESTONPANS, EAST LOTHIAN AND CONFESSED TO HAVE A COMPACT WITH THE DEVIL

  • HE WAS ACCUSED BY GILES DUNCAN OF BEWITCHING TOWNSFOLK, PREACHING WITCHCRAFT

 

  • RICHARD WAS EXECUTED BY BURNING

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • BARBARA  WAS ACCUSED OF BEWITCHING ARCHIBALD DOUGLAS, 8TH EARL OF ANGUS, TO DEATH.

  • SHE WAS REPORTED TO HAVE DIED

 

  • FROM A DISEASE SO STRANGE THERE COULD BE NO CURE OR REMEDY, BARBARA WAS ALSO KNOWN AS THE "WISE WIFE OF KEITH

 

  • AGNES WAS A SCOTTISH HEALER AND PURPORTED WITCH.

  • AGNES WAS STRANGLED AND THEN BURNT

EXTRA INFORMATION ON THE NORTH BERWICK WITCH TRIALS:
 
  • Agnes Sampson, who was examined by King James himself at his palace of Holyrood House., was fastened to the wall of her cell by a “witch's bridle”, an iron instrument with four sharp prongs forced into the mouth, so that two prongs pressed against the tongue, and the two others against the cheeks. She was kept without sleep, thrown with a rope around her head, and only after these ordeals did Agnes Sampson confess to the fifty-three indictments against her, Sampson also confessed to attending a Sabbat with 200 witches, Geillis Duncan among them.

 

  • Newes from Scotland, a printed pamphlet, from London,  describes the infamous North Berwick witch trials in Scotland and the confessions given before the King.

 

  • The Old Tolbooth was used as a jail where judicial torture was routinely carried out

 

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NORTH BERWICK WITCH TRIALS IN FICTION

A recurring character, tried and convicted of being a witch, is named Geillis Duncan in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series of novels. In the television adaptation, she is portrayed by Lotte Verbeek.

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